A night at the Royal Opera House is surely one of the grandest theatrical experiences that London has to offer. And what better to celebrate the ‘royal’ aspect of it than Benjamin Britten’s opera on Queen Elizabeth I, written exactly 60 years ago to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Yes, Gloriana is very, very grand. The expertise and sheer brilliance of the singers and orchestra is remarkable, even if the music isn’t quite to your taste (think difficult time signatures and completely un-catchy melodies), and the set design is one of the most elaborate we’ve ever seen. It seems that every stop was pulled to produce this opera, and it’s really a sight to behold.
Gloriana portrays the public and private lives of the Virgin Queen, one moment on a royal procession through the country, the next de-wigged and bald at her dressing table. Focusing on her relationship with the young Earl of Essex, the story comes to a climax when the Queen must choose between her heart and her duty to the state. Interestingly, the Virgin Queen is not always shown in good light (there’s one scene in particular where she publicly humiliates the Countess of Essex’s dress for being too gaudy), potentially a reason why the opera didn’t receive the best reception from our present Queen when it was first performed.
That said, this new production directed by Richard Jones is refreshing, busy and alive with a touch of humour. There’s a sweet ballet duet, and neat lines of schoolboys trot in and out holding placards throughout in Wes Anderson-esque style (a nod, perhaps, to Britten’s Noye’s Fludde featuring in Anderson’s latest film). Susan Bullock dominates the stage with her unerring depiction of the queen, and Toby Spence equally so with his soaring tenor Earl of Essex. 2013 is a year for great anniversaries, and this one marks three of them – the Queen’s coronation, 60 years since the opera’s premiere at the Royal Opera House and Britten’s centenary. Celebrate the three in one by going to see the opera which has been alive precisely as long as the Queen’s reign.
(N.B. BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting a live performance on the 29th of June at 6:45 pm)
Gloriana is running now at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden until the 6th of July. Tickets from £34 – £135.
Londonist saw this performance on a complimentary press ticket.